More Victims than Just the Dead Guy

To write a great mystery, you need a sympathetic victim. Sean Mactire’s book, Malicious Intent: A Writer’s Guide to How Murderers, Robbers, Rapists, and Other Criminal Think, contains useful information for creating a great victim, but he takes it even further. The psychological and emotional trauma has a far-reaching impact, and a great writer will take that into account.

Friends, families, and entire communities become victims, too. Think of a bomb blast. The victim is at ground zero and gets the full impact of the blast, both physically and emotionally. Then the emotional shock waves spread. The family is engulfed. Then the wave spreads, and friends are hurt. Then coworkers, classmates, acquaintances, and other casual relationships. “The outer circle may be distant from the harm,” Mactire says, “but the suffering is the same.” The community where the victim lives–and if it’s a different location, the community where the crime occurred–also feel the blast. Mactire says that anyone within a two to five mile radius could feel overcome with fear and will experience some of the symptoms of traumatic shock and post-traumatic stress syndrome. 

Mactire brings up a great example. In a city where he once lived, a man was shot and killed when he answered a knock at his front door. It was two escaped convicts. They killed him, took his car keys, and drove off. This man became a victim simply because he had a car parked in front of his house and the lights were on. The next day, his quiet community was an armed camp. Anyone knocking on doors were greeted with rifles, shotguns, you name it. People walked their dogs and shopped for food with handguns in their pockets. Almost five years after the crime, the people are still heavily armed, and every time a new crime occurs in the neighborhood, that old wound from the original shooting is opened and the people’s fear and pain increase.

Keep these things in mind when you kill off your sympathetic victim. Family members may be too devastated to speak to the police, who are desperately in need of information that only family members can provide. The victim’s neighbors will be shell-shocked, and might not be able to recall necessary information. Sometimes entire communities panic when a violent crime occurs, and that could lead to accidents, misunderstandings, and more homicides. There are many different ways people respond to trauma (heightened vigilance, violence, total withdrawal, apathy, etc), so be sure to put some of these realistic reactions into your victim’s sphere of influence and see how it impacts your story.


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